Death of a doctor who turned ‘deserts into gardens’

Japan national Tetsu Nakamura, who had worked in Afghanistan for decades, was killed by gunmen

December 21, 2019 09:13 pm | Updated December 22, 2019 12:33 pm IST

Few other foreign nationals have perhaps received as much love and admiration from the Afghans as Tetsu Nakamura, a Japanese doctor who dedicated his life to improving healthcare, water availability and agriculture in Afghanistan over the last four decades. Affectionately referred to as Kaka Murad, the 73-year-old was killed, along with five others, by armed gunmen in the eastern city of Jalalabad early this month.

Nakamura’s death evoked an outpour of grief from Afghans across the country, with candlelight vigils held in many cities and activists painting his murals on the walls of Kabul and Jalalabad city, the doctor’s adopted hometown. Civil society activists have demanded justice for the man they saw as one of their own. “It is a very innocent story of a man who worked for Afghanistan, his dedication was visible in the results he achieved in changing the eastern Afghanistan, literally changing deserts to gardens, and perhaps that is why so many Afghans feel affected by his death,” said Omaid Sharifi, founder of ArtLords, an arts collective that painted the murals.

Among Nakamura’s achievements is the construction of a Japanese canal over the Kunar River that irrigated close to 40,000 acres of desert land in the eastern province. The Ramon Magsaysay awardee also undertook water projects, including the building of 11 dams and 1,500 wells that impacted over 6,50,000 Afghans living in Nangarhar province. He was awarded the Afghan citizenship in October to honour his contributions to the conflict-ridden country. “Dr. Nakumra was a man who did a lot for the poor Afghans than some of our own leaders and politicians; that’s why the entire nation was pained over his murder,” said Idrees Stanikzai, a political activist of a movement called Youth Trend in Kabul.

Public mourning

Mr. Stanikzai’s organisation was one among the many that organised public mourning and candle light vigil to honour the slain doctor. The response to calls for mass mourning of the Japanese national in Afghanistan was overwhelming, he said. “He knew and respected our culture and had a very clear message — he used to say that he hasn’t come with tanks, guns and helicopters. He has come with love to serve Afghanistan,” Mr. Stanikzai said.

Mr. Sharifi of ArtLords, too, experienced a strong sense of solidarity while painting the murals. “We did two murals, one in Jalalabad and one in Kabul, in central parts of the cities. In both places, children, local vendors, people on the street came up to us and offered to help paint him and everyone was grieving. They all knew his face intimately,” Mr. Sharifi recalled, adding that even the local police, who usually tend to harass the artists when they are painting the street, were supportive.

The larger than life murals carry the portrait of the martyred hero along with words of Afghan poet Rumi that roughly translate as ‘On this soil, we will only plant seeds of love and empathy’. “Afghans feel connected to his man and want to honour a good soul. In some ways this connection tells you so much about Afghans and how we bond to those with genuine intentions,” Mr. Sharifi said.

Many individuals and organisations have pressured the the government to investigate the killing and bring the perpetrators to justice. “We have asked for justice and also to punish security officials responsible for this lapse,” Mr. Stanikzai said, adding that many officials suspect Pakistani military and intelligence powers to have been behind this attack.

“The dams that Dr. Nakamura had proposed to build over Kunar River could arrest water flow to Pakistan, which we believe could be the motive to kill him and hurt the projects,” Mr. Stanikzai said. While the Taliban denied involvement in Nakamura’s death, Afghan government has arrested six suspects.

However, as a country aggrieved by many tragedies, the recurring losses of compatriots and allies weigh heavily on Afghans. “When we started ArtLords, we wanted to bring smiles and encourage empathy in Afghanistan. We wanted to heal the wounds of the war through music, theatre and art. But lately, I feel we have had to paint the faces of dead heroes,” Mr. Sharifi said. “Every single day, our people die, we are losing some very good souls, the best of the humanity are lost to this cause.” Indeed, the ongoing conflict has claimed thousands of lives, with UN agencies documenting over 8,200 civilian casualties this year alone. “I hope it stops. I hope I don’t have to paint another deceased hero,” Mr. Sharifi said.

( Ruchi Kumar is a journalist based in Kabul )

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